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The American Megafauna
How Humans First Reached America, and What They Saw...
Today in the 21st Century, the United States has two national holidays to celebrate the arrival of Europeans (Columbus Day and Thanksgiving) but strangely none to commemorate the much earlier and altogether spectacular discovery of the Americas by its own indigenous people. The first Native Americans were among the hardiest people ever to live on the planet, descended from Siberian hunters who lived and thrived in probably the least hospitable environment on the planet.
Around 13,000 years ago, humans travelled across the Bering Strait on foot, crossing from what is now Russia into modern Alaska. At the time, most of the far north of America was frozen solid under a mile of ice, thus explaining why the first Native Americans were able to walk across relatively easily. There was though a tiny corner of North America that was free of ice, a narrow corridor of dry land called Beringia in the far North-West of the continent, that allowed the first Americans to traverse southwards with relative ease.
Ultimately these human pioneers would come to identified by a single tool, a long, sharp spearhead known as the Clovis point named after the New Mexico town where it was first found in 1968, since then they have been found in every US state below Alaska. These distinctive stone points appear suddenly in the archaeological record about 13,000 years ago and were usually attached to a long dart shaft and launched with an atlatl or spear-thrower. It seems as if they were used specifically for hunting large animals, as many have been found with or even embedded in the bones of large herbivores such as mammoths.
The people who originally discovered America found a virgin continent, where no man had ever trodden before, it was the biggest discovery in human history, with the Clovis people laying claim to a quarter of the Earth’s surface. It won’t be until our species prints its feet on other planets, that we’ll acquire such a vast amount of territory again. Furthermore, the Clovis people discovered what could only be described as a super Serengeti, a land stocked full of large animals, the likes of which no human eye had ever seen before. Below I shall explain more about the magnificent animals that inhabited the North American continent at the time of its discovery by humans.
The American Horse
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The Long Horned Bison
The Last Surviving American Camel
A Deer or a Moose?
America's Giant Herbivores
Imagine being able to travel back in time 13,000 years into North America’s past; what sort of sights and creatures would be there to greet you. Today it’s difficult to imagine just how amazing and untamed everything was; in the present era unfortunately the American megafauna are so diminished that to actually see one for real is a rare and often moving experience. But the eyes of those first Paleo-explorers saw wonders that seem scarcely believable in our modern, crowded and urbanised world.
In some respects, the New World of 13,000 years ago or the Pleistocene era as it’s more commonly known was very much like the New World we are familiar with today. Almost all of the plants, small animals and insects that live and thrive today, did so back then, albeit in slightly different locations due to the fact that on average the world was around ten degrees cooler than today, meaning that Polar animals for example would have ranged much further south than they do at present.
So, onto those fascinating, now extinct monsters, that still capture imaginations today. I shall begin by outlining the various large herbivores that roamed across North America. Today, whenever we think of elephants, we think of those majestic, oddly graceful slabs of flesh moving slowly across the African savannah. Africa today is home to two kinds of elephant, the famous savannah elephant and the less familiar forest elephant that roam widely across the vast forests of the Congo. America though, wasn’t just home to one, two, or even three, but an incredible five different species of elephant. Of the five, the most famous of these was the woolly mammoth; it lived on the frigid Arctic tundra on the margins of the coniferous forests. It was actually smaller than its contemporaries, rarely measuring more than 9 feet at the shoulder and weighing around 8 tons. The frozen remains of these creatures reveal that they had a dense coat varying in colour from dark brown to almost black, with an undercoat wool 4 inches thick that offered it greater protection from the cold, as did its short ears and comparatively smaller trunk. Like their close relatives they spent their days grazing the tough grasses of the ice age tundra, spending up to 12 hours a day gathering an estimated 400Ib’s worth of food.
Another famous elephant, or to put it more accurately a close relative of the elephants was the mastodon. These creatures were lighter in colouring than the mammoths, and only grew to about 8 feet, and weighing in at 4-6 tons. They preferred to live in woodlands, and as result may have lived in smaller herds. Analysis of their teeth suggests that they were browsers, feeding on trees and shrubs rather than grass. They were, probably the equivalent of Africa’s forest elephants which are much smaller than their open country cousins.
The biggest animal living on the continent was the Columbian mammoth, and indeed was one of the largest mammals to ever walk the Earth. It measured up to 13 feet at the shoulder and weighed in at 10 tonnes. In order to support such an incredible bulk, they needed to eat around 500Ib’s of grasses and sedges each day, supplemented with spruce tips, oak leaves, sagebrush, cattails and even prickly pear cacti, all of which have been found in their dung. They were less hairy than woolly mammoths and had longer, more curved tusks. They were probably the most adaptable of all the elephants, thriving in deserts, grasslands and parklands. Their 15 foot long tusks are thought to have served as some sort of social function as well as providing defence against predators.
As well as elephants, North America was home to a staggering variety of hoofed animals. Today, most American schoolchildren learn that the horse was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish, but few realise that in fact the Spanish were unintentionally reintroducing the horse back to the land of its evolutionary origin. Modern horses, including zebras actually first appeared in the New World some 4 million years ago before migrating across the rest of the world. So, the next time you go on safari and observe the zebras, you’re seeing a small piece of America transported onto the African plains. Pleistocene America was home to five kinds of horse, including one that may have looked like a zebra.
There were also many species of camel, another animal with its evolutionary origins in the New World, they were specialists in coping in an environment subject to sudden change, and were also adept at surviving in arid environments just like their modern relatives. The biggest of the camels was a cold adapted, one humped creature called Yesterday’s camel which had legs 20 per cent longer than its modern relatives. In the modern era, the America’s boasts two camel species, the vicuna and guanaco, the wild ancestors of domestic llamas and alpacas respectfully.
The extraordinary hoofed menagerie was completed by various species of pronghorn antelope that lived alongside their modern cousins, an archaic form of moose with deer like antlers, a creature related to the musk ox that dwelt in woodland, a large mountain goat, a huge beaver the size of a bear, pigs, tapirs and the enormous long horned bison which was much larger than its modern relative, it also possessed larger, straighter horns that spanned more than 7 feet from tip to tip. They would have been the equivalent of Africa’s Cape buffalo, fulfilling a similar ecological niche, and just like their African kin they would have occasionally fallen prey to large feline predators- a mummified corpse of young long horned bison actually had a tooth fragment embedded in its flank from one such predator.
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Such a huge menagerie of herbivores meant that North America boasted an equally impressive collection of carnivores. Pleistocene North America was home to an impressive suite of big cats, including some of the largest the world has ever seen. Among them, were the sabre-toothed cats including the American sabre-tooth, known as Smilodon, as well as the American scimitar cat or Homotherium, these cats gained the name from their strange, serrated canines which formed terrifying slicing weapons rather like steak knives. It stood at around 3.5 feet at the shoulder and weighed in at up to 550Ib. In build it was similar to a hyena, with slender front legs and shorter front legs. Its claws were semi-retractable like the modern cheetah suggesting that it was a fast runner. According to fossil analysis, it seems that the scimitar cat specialised in killing young elephants, probably waiting for them to become separated from their mothers or herds before striking. The cat’s serrated teeth were designed specifically for ripping through tough elephant hides. It’s possible that this creature hunted in packs or prides using teamwork to separate young elephants away from their parents.
Living alongside the sabre-tooth’s were cats that would strike us as almost disturbingly familiar, there was an American lion, which weighed up to 1100Ib’s making it twice the size of its modern relatives, there was even an American cheetah, which explains why the modern pronghorn is the second fastest animal on the planet, it needed to be quick to evade the cheetah. Incidentally the cheetah was the only cat genera to actually originate in North America before migrating to Africa around 2 million years ago, where, of course its descendents survive to this day. The cheetah actually shares a close relationship with the cougar; the small head and long tail serve as evidence of their close relationship.
But that wasn’t it, for the first Americans also lived alongside lynxes and bobcats, as well as many cats now restricted to the tropics such as jaguars, ocelots, jaguarondis, river cats and margays. Such a diverse range of cats living in one place at the same time was only possible due to the vast numbers of plant eaters roaming the landscape.
Alongside the cats, lived the dogs and the bears; the first Americans would have glimpsed many such creatures that still live today such as the grey and red wolf, the coyote, and seven species of bear. They may have been astonished by the sight of the now extinct dire wolf, which was similar to the grey wolf, but around 25 per cent larger. But dwarfing all of the predators mentioned so far was the giant short faced bear, probably the largest mammalian predator to ever stalk the Earth. It grew to a terrifying size, about the size of a horse when standing on four legs, and reaching 15 feet when standing erect. Like its cousins it would have probably been more of a scavenger than a pure predator, using its enormous, sensitive nose to seek out carrion. Its sheer size and bulk would have been enough to ward off any competitors and its enormous bone crunching jaws meant that it could feast upon almost all of a carcass. The first Americans must have lived in fear of it; some scientists even go as far as saying that this terrifying monster delayed the arrival of humans in North America.
North America was also home to an impressive collection of large predatory birds including many species of vulture and eagle, as well as the teratorns, the largest flying birds of all time. They actually evolved in South America initially before migrating into North America. The largest species present in the North at the time was the incredible teratorn which boasted a 16 foot wingspan, much bigger than any living bird, but it was a mere dwarf compared to its South American relative, the magnificent teratorn whose wingspan of 39 feet was as large as a small aeroplane. Scientists though, are puzzled as to exactly what these birds did, did they predate on small mammals or were they colossal rubbish disposal machines? It’s still uncertain.
Three Fantastic Books
A fantastic review of the megafauna that we encountered and what caused their extinction.
The South American Megafauna as shown in Walking With Beasts: Part 1
South American Oddities
Many of the large animals of South America would have been identical to North America, but there were also some very different, odd and unique characters which I shall outline here. The first are the very famous ground sloths, they were easily one of the strangest animals encountered by the first Americans. There were five different species ranging from lion sized to monstrous elephant sized giants. Each species was specially adapted for a certain habitat, they were also among the few South American animals that successfully colonised North America, with some ground sloths adapting to the frigid cold of Alaska where they browsed on shrubs and other hardy plants. They could raise themselves onto trunk like hind legs, which allowed them to feed among the trees and defend themselves against the fearsome American predators. The remains of some individuals are so well preserved that tendons and skin are still present, and the dung smells fresh when moistened.
Another strange South American oddity was the glyptodonts, enormous relatives of the armadillo, with some growing to the size of a family car. These lumbering, slow moving herbivores were heavily armoured, protected by a shell made up of bony polygons all bound together by collagen, making them look like a little like enormous tortoises. Their tails were protected by rings of armour near the bases, and in one species at least the tail was tipped with a spiked ball reminiscent of a mace. It was almost as if evolution had revived the armoured dinosaur in mammalian form.
South America was also home to giant rodents similar to the modern capybara, strange herbivores called litopterns which looked curiously like llamas, but were totally unrelated and also possessed a curious tapir like nose, there was also the toxodon, another strange mammal totally unrelated to anything alive today but may have resembled a hornless rhino.
Perhaps the strangest animal of all was the flightless bird Titanis; I suppose the best way to describe this bird is to say imagine something like a secretary bird, but the size of a grown man, with a larger, more powerful beak, and an insatiable appetite for mammals. Titanis originally evolved in South America, and was the top predator there for 40 million years, before the joining of the American continents saw the arrival of the cats who quickly established themselves as top predators. Titanis though, managed to survive, occupying a new niche as a scavenger, it even managed to spread north, colonising what is now Texas. It survived right up to the time that the first humans ventured into the Americas; it’s not known for sure whether man and Titanis actually met. But if they did, it would have been the closest any humans got to meeting a real life dinosaur.
Two Fantastic Links
- Megafauna - "First Victims of the Human-Caused Extinction" - book by Baz Edmeades
An exceptional e-book on the megafauna extinction written by Baz Edmeades.
This concludes my profile on the American megafauna, I shall compile profiles of the megafauna that lived on the other continents during the Pleistocene epoch (1.8 million years ago-10,000 years ago) before investigating why these huge, strange and fierce creatures suddenly became extinct after millions of years of success.
More to follow...
© 2012 James Kenny